04 Ott Street art, ghosts of the crisis, and charismatic madness. Jim Jones’s stickers in the streets of Rome
Sequential waves of stickers bearing a Jim Jones’s photo have been flooding many squares and streets in downtown Rome.
Reverend Jim Jones was the founder, and the terminal angel of death, of the People’s Temple, a Californian sect-church which committed suicide with a cyanide-laced soft drink on November 18, 1978. The ritual of self-destruction took place in a rural community the Temple had created in the heart of the jungle of Guyana, and had aptly named Jonestown: 908 dead, including at least 200 children, plus a few others slain and suicidal at the church site in Georgetown.
I doubt many in Italy would know who Jim Jones was, and what he looked like. Besides, why such an uncanny and ectoplasmic apparition on the traffic lights , the road signs , the garbage bins and the walls of Viale Regina Margherita, piazza Alessandria, piazza Buenos Aires, Via Nomentana, Via XX Settembre, just to mention some places where I spotted the ghost? Or Why not?
The photo on the stickers bears no name nor signature. Should the name “Jim Jones” be written on it, very few passers-by would ‘recognize ‘ it, and link it to an outlandish episode of catastrophic self-dissolution of a social entity. Maybe only a few unfortunate students in my Social Psychology course of years ago… Besides, in the U.S. name system, Jim Jones sounds very much like Paolo Rossi in Italy or Pierre Dupont in France: an individual name which is a collective avatar, the name of a category, epitomizing the undifferentiated banality of human seriality. So again an anonymous name.
There is a deadly and already dead shade in this visage. You sense it with increasing anxiety even without knowing of the 908 deaths in Jonestown, which included Jim Jones himself. And there is this iconic and typographic layout of a holy image, but with an aura devoid of holiness. Present yet dead, anonymous yet with a name, ‘holy’ out of destruction : a revenant, a backcomer from the dead, the bearer of an invitation to follow him to nowhere, once again, like the 907 sect members behind him towards the cyanide vat in the jungle ( but he preferred to die a phallic death, a gunshot to the head ). Der Rattenfänger , the Pied Piper, where the pipe was his voice-music, which accompanied the group of followers to the voice-rattle of death by suffocation.
But why now, why in Rome ? Why not? It could be a post-modern ironic representation of the outcome of Berlusconi’s charisma, the Pied Piper who dragged behind him those who followed out of love and out of hate – which was still love -, blinding them to everything else, to all the rats that remained crouched inside the polis and their own groups. Berlusconi, an ectoplasm with the semblance of life, a zombie woven with and made out of the projections and identifications of those who follow him in love or hate. Berlusconi actually already dead but unwilling to die, i.e. exit the stage, which means dying to the charismatic leader, for they live through and by their audiences, sucking life out of them. Berlusconi, who does not accept the outcome of all life, and the inescapable fate of charisma :
« Every charisma is on the road from a turbulently emotional life that knows no economic rationality to a slow death by suffocation under the weight of material interests: every hour of its existence brings it nearer to this end. » [Max Weber, Economy and Society , Berkeley, 1978 (1922) , p. 1161 ].
Berlusconi who, as each and every charismatic leader, holds together the social body through himself, and translates his own (political, physical) death into the catastrophe of the dissolution of society, which is the sociological form of the end of the world.
The holy image of Jim Jones conjures up and explicits a deep undertow of our political imagination and of our collective emotions, the mystical body of the social which dissolves itself together with the body natural and the body politic of the Sovereign. Or maybe it only hints at the underground perception of a social body – Italy – facing hopelessly its own entropic implosion while it cannibalizes itself. A social body without a project able to morph fear and anger into a mouth devouring reality and the future. A social body that turns against itself its vital force, in an autoimmune process symmetrical to the ghost of a collective suicide. Dying all together in a terminal acting out of cohesiveness : Why not? keeps singing the depleted psychotic child who curls up in our social belly. The dreams of my psychoanalytic patients say it relentlessly. It was not Jim Jones, the mad Father, who allured Jonestown into death. It was Jonestown which looked for, nurtured and shaped up the charismatic leader able to realize the folie à plusieurs of the group fantasies of death. Call me Jones as the postmodern substitute for Call me Ishmael. The delusion core of the social wanted – wants – to die. Like a unflinching mirror, the visual game of these enigmatic stickers of a ghost scattered through the streets of Babylon reminds us that for not a few among us the world’s energy is over by now, and the sun is dying.